The papers had been delivered a few hours ago and England has been unable to tear his eyes away ever since. They lie accusingly on his desk, numbers and statistics and he remembers the cheers from Parliament and it rather makes him want to cry because when they fight, it is just another country to them, it is a formless conglomerate of people and language, most of whom they will never meet. They do not have to fight a country but be able to put a face to that country, a name, a friend.
It is the least that he can do to read the reports, memorise the numbers, the casualties, the losses, and even if he cannot put a name to them all individually there is only one name that he needs to know, only one that he needs to face.
England has been expecting it for the last few hours, ever since the reports arrived, but it still takes him by surprise when the door slams open. He winces as the heavy wood hits the wall behind it, but it's a minor concern that he barely has time to acknowledge before a sharp crack resounds around the room and his cheek is stinging and hot. It takes him a moment to realise why, that the two are connected and by then France's hands are gripping the front of his uniform and a mess of words are bombarding him, French and mangled English backed by savage anger. The fingers that are fisted in his collar he knows from experience are scarred and strong.
He grabs France's wrists, not just slim, but thin and bony beneath his fingers, holding them tight until France's hands uncurl. But he does not step away, his expression still harsh and hurt and framed by wild golden hair. England releases him slowly, reaches up to adjust his tie, loosen his collar and take a shuddering breath now that he is not being slowly choked.
"What is it, France?" he asks tightly, and he knows, he knows exactly what it is and he knows that France realises this, but he still asks because there is no other way to start this conversation, not without giving violence in return. He thinks that he could stomach that all too easily and the thought disgusts him. His cheek is sore, and he can feel a thin trickle of blood run down it where France's nails must have caught him.
"You know what it is," France hisses, his accent stretched to breaking point. His words are barely recognisable as English, barely recognisable as language rather than a primal growl of grief and rage. "You murdered them! My people, they are dead because of you!"
"We're at war, France. They're dead because of Germany. He is killing your people."
"He is not supposed to be an ally," France growls in response, hands tightening into fists and England finds himself bracing for another slap, but France's temper is like a match, brightness quick to flare and dying just as quickly. Instead it is ice cold revenge that he excels at. "He is someone that I would expect this from. Not you."
England remembers other times, other wars when France would have expected this from him, when he had seen England do this to him, the terror of the seas destroying another fleet and laughing as he does it. He is not laughing now and he will not cheer like his politicians. "We are at war," England repeats and he hates that he can give no other excuse. How many of those sailors had despised Germany and Vichy as much as the man in front of him? How many of them would have joined the Free French if they only could have? But he cannot think that way or he will crumble. "We are fighting for survival and anything that stands in the way of that must be destroyed or they will destroy us."
"They were not in your way!" France snaps. "They were not German soldiers. They were mine! My ships! My people!"
"And they were in the way! They would not surrender! They would not leave and I cannot risk my people further down the line. They would have joined the war and I could not risk what men and resources I do have on the hope that they would not fight us."
France just stares at him for a moment, hair falling over his red-raw eyes. "Sometimes, Angleterre, you make me feel like it would be better to return to Vichy and beg for Germany's mercy. At least I would be on my own soil then. You are as ruthless as each other." The words are utterly miserable, like England has never heard him sound before, and settle ice in his stomach.
The revolver is a cold weight in England's hand as he removes it from his belt, clicking the safety off. His fingers do not tremble as he sights along it, a clear shot point blank at France's pretty face. It's as though he's looking through a magnifying glass; he sees France's throat bob uncertainly, the minute widening of his already wide eyes, the hiss of breath over slightly parted lips. Everything has slowed down, the seconds drawing out and out and out, taut enough that surely they will snap, taking the frayed edges of his sanity with them.
"If that is the case," he grinds out, feeling every word dig in his throat, bitter and acidic, "then tell me so that I can kill you now before you have the chance to regret that decision." His finger rests on the trigger and he'll shoot if he has to, he'll spatter France's brains across the wall and clean his office up and go out and never surrender because he cannot do anything else. Not anymore.
The silence drags sickly until France drops his gaze, lips twisted into a bitter smile. "Non, you will not. Do you truly believe that it would kill me?" There is an uncertain note in his voice, echoed in the line of his lips, and England might find it alluring at another time, with France's eyes glazed with pleasure and his voice a purring caress. Here and now it makes him feel sick, makes him feel like a monster.
England's gaze doesn't falter though, and he squeezes the trigger, just a little, sees France's breath catch. "There is no République française at the moment," he says harshly, his own voice sounding distant to him. It's easier if he can convince himself that he doesn't care. "Maybe you will die and all that will be left is Vichy's French State."
"If I go back then I would perhaps have a semblance of a life, even if you lose."
Hot red anger and for a moment, England wants so very much to shoot because it would be better than listening to France, proud France, talk like this. "And is being Germany's whore the semblance of a life that you want?" he snarls, dropping his aim. His fingers tremble now, but with anger instead of uncertainty.
"Is being your whore so much better?" England can see France's teeth beneath lips drawn back in frustration before France ducks his head, stares at the floor, hair hiding his expression.
England's face crumples a little, his brows knitted together into a pained expression because when has France ever been unable to meet his eyes? "You aren't my whore," he protests, setting the safety and putting the gun back into its holster. "You've never been my whore." He takes a step towards the other nation.
France does look then, a sideways glance, sly and smart and deep enough to be uncomfortable, even for England. "You give my people explosives and guns and money, you train them and give them refuge in your country and in return, what? I warm your bed, pleasure you during the long nights. Are these not the actions of a whore, even if I do it for my people?"
He feels rather like he's been punched in the gut when he hears France speaking like this and he wants to reach out and grab France but he isn't sure whether it is to shake him hard until he starts making sense again or just pull him close and promise that everything will be right again soon. He knows that neither will work.
"It's not like that!" England insists, not quite daring to touch France even if he wants to. He doesn't know how to deal with France when he's like this, when he isn't strong and determined. "We're allies, France. We're friends." They've been too much to each other, he thinks; bitter enemies, uneasy allies, standing shoulder to shoulder in a desperate stand, relying on each other. He has sacrificed people for France, would do it again, and he had thought that they were lovers but perhaps he has just been fooling himself all these months.
The searing look that he receives in response makes his breath catch in his throat. "Allies fight alongside each other," France says darkly. "Allies speak with one another." He sighs, running a hand through his hair, pulling it tightly away from his face. It just emphasises how tired and thin he looks, the dark circles around hollow eyes, the pinched lines around his mouth. "You do not tell me much. You keep me in the dark and then you do things like this."
The words ring in the silence and England fidgets uncomfortably. "I'm not sorry," he says eventually, his voice harsh, his expression harsher. "I did what had to be done. This is war and I know it better than anything." His expression softens though as he looks at France, as close to apology as he can manage. "I regret that I had to hurt you, but I love you too much not to." There's something sickening about those words but it is true. If he has to hurt France to free him, then he will do it all again in a heartbeat.
France finally meets his eyes and then a faint, self-depreciating smile curls his lips. He snorts derisively and shakes his head. "Love? Non. If you love me then your love is a very cruel thing." His shoulders slump a little, but that terrible, violent tension is gone from his body at least.
England does reach out then, as perhaps he should have done before this started, when France first came to him, bruised and bleeding as he fled his land. It is a simple thing, a hand against France's shoulder but it seems to do something because France gives a shuddering sigh and does not pull away. "I want to stop Germany," England says. "I have to stop him. You understand that, don't you?" Of course he does, he has to. He is France and he understands war as well as England does. He knows that sacrifices have to be made!
France sneers at him and that is a much more familiar expression. It is a relief to see it, to see something more in his expression than pain and resignation. "I understand war, Angleterre. But it is my place to send my people to die, not yours. If we are allies then you cannot hide these things from me, you cannot keep me hidden away because I might break!" He grabs England's shoulders, shaking him gently. "I am not fragile porcelain, not something to be locked up. I will make my own decisions and I will tell you when I find yours despicable, as you have always told me of mine."
England's hands tighten into fists at his sides, his posture tightening as France shakes him like a doll. He wants to snarl, wants to ask why then, if France is not fragile, does England have to protect him, from Germany, from Vichy? And what right does he have to condemn when England is doing this for him? "I'm not sorry," he repeats, jaw set. "I won't apologise for being ruthless. I have to be ruthless."
France drops his gaze, breaking their contact and pulling away. England mourns the loss of the warmth against his shoulders. It feels like losing something more. "I know," France agrees with a little shake of his head. "And I will not apologise for hating you for this, just a little."
He should be used to this by now, hurting France, being hated by him. It is what they have done for as long as England can remember. Finally he straightens up, folding his hands behind his back, perfect military posture. He inclines his head at France, polite and cold and nothing more.